By now most Christians have been made aware of the putative anti-religious elements in “The golden Compass” a movie made from part of the Phillip Pullman book by the same name, part of a trilogy, “his Dark Materials”. I’ve read the entire trilogy and, all other considerations aside, this is a beautiful bit of literature, a real treasure.
Ah… but it is heresy?
The Kansas City Star
“The Golden Compass” — and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy of novels on which it is based — has been criticized in some quarters for being anti-religious and specifically anti-Catholic. But the U.S. Conference of Bishops recently issued its official review of the film… [and] critics Harry Forbes and John Mulderig call the movie “lavish, well-acted and fast-paced.”

“‘Most moviegoers with no foreknowledge of the books or Pullman’s personal belief system will scarcely be aware of religious connotations, and can approach the movie as a pure fantasy-adventure. This is not the blatant real-world anti-Catholicism of, say, the recent ‘Elizabeth: The Golden Age’ or ‘The Da Vinci Code.’ Religious elements, as such, are practically nil.’

“Whatever Pullman’s motives in writing the story, the film ‘can be viewed as an exciting adventure story with, at its core, a traditional struggle between good and evil and a generalized rejection of authoritarianism…’”


When I first read Pullman’s epic trilogy, I was later very surprised to learn that he was an avowed atheist. I won’t use this space to get deep into the interesting “spiritual” and quasi spiritual elements embedded in this fantasy construct, or unpack the strange, but ultimately moral, “theology” they imply. Suffice it to say that many of these elements can be read as we moderns read the bible – as allegory.

When read as an allegory, Pullman’s trilogy seems to represent much more than a classic moral-conflict drama with supernatural elements. The story line unfolds in a set of neo-medieval worlds (all alternate universes) intersecting at Oxford. In Pullman’s narrative, many familiar elements of the spiritual life are portrayed as physical phenomena. For example, the main characters have “souls” but they appear as quasi-physical manifestations outside the body, sentient, intelligent animals (a bird, a mammal, a suitably compatible critter for each character). Each soul animal is in loving relationship with the human host, but instantly dies when the host dies. In this, I suppose, the author intends to demonstrate the primacy of the physical over the spiritual. But in this trilogy, witches and angels fly.

In my own theology, I believe that God and God’s Holy Spirit permeate and guide the minds of all who are receptive. The mind of an avowed atheist who is trapped in a primitive arch-materialism, but retains a strong ethical sense, represents an interesting problem in “God-message” interpretation and decoding.

God is getting through but the message distortion factor is fairly high. But everything we receive from the Mind of God is refracted thorough all our preconceptions.

I hope later to make the case in more detail that Pullman’s vision, stripped of its extracurricular atheist/materialist gloss, is really a form of crypto-theism. It is a – distorted, to be sure – vision of a deity-infused realm in which the roles of the usual players are reversed (witches are good – clerics are bad), but the good-evil struggle remains and the author is on the side of the good.

In his alternate fantasy universe, Pope “Calvin” and followers are a venal lot, a bitter caricature of the real thing. The ethics of Jesus are nowhere associated with that fictional “religious” body. I submit that this is actually the portrayal of an atheist church in a universe where God’s spirit appears as “dust” (a form of matter that is revealed in the later books to represent consciousness itself).

Pullman is like many atheists whose own anti-theology – also a product of faith – represents what I’ve called the “PEAS” condition, for Post Ecclesial Abuse Syndrome. It isn’t difficult for someone who has not known Grace to become anti-clerical and anti-church, based on the history of ecclesial abuse and persecution of scientists.

I strongly suspect that Pullman picked Calvin as the model for his shadowy anti-“Pope” figure (we never see this Pope in the novels) because of that strident Protestant’s doctrinaire literalism, his notion of the elect, and the “Servetus incident”.


The real Calvin, a 16th century lawyer cleric, espoused the twin doctrines of predestination and election in which certain special individuals were “elected” for salvation from the very beginning. Naturally these elect formed the core of the Calvinist church at the time.

Calvin’s old friend (also a lawyer), Servetus, rejected key elements of Calvin’s theology, including the notion of original sin. He asserted that all mortal humans could be touched by Grace and be saved. Some of his ideas were less benign – for example, Servetus held that infant baptism was instituted by Satan, and pagan infant sacrifices. In August 1553, when Servetus showed up at church to hear his old friend preach, Calvin had him arrested for heresy. Although Calvin had only asked for beheading (as a more humane punishment!) Servetus was burned at the stake the same year.

This fictional Pope Calvin in “His Dark Materials” is not fit to tie the shoes of Benedict or John Paul or for that matter, to attend to the slippers of the Dali Lama.

Back to Phillip Pullman, that “Celebrated” Atheist

Oxford (where Mr. Pullman lives) is a cultural epicenter of an arid arch-materialism, a cool commitment to empiricism in all things that has provided intellectual support for the bleak notion that all human hope, morality, esthetics and ethical sensibility can ultimately be reduced to mere physical elements – matter, energy, and the space-time continuum.

Taken seriously this world-view can reduce a musical masterwork of surpassing beauty to air pressure fluctuations that induce electrical changes in the brain.

And in the alternate universe of Oxford empiricism, all morality – from Hume to Sartre – becomes a matter of personal preference, rather like hair style or … Oxford manners. As hollow and parodic as my portrait may seem, it is less of a caricature than Mr. Pullman’s alternate universe version of the Catholic Magisterium.

The huge difficulty that full-on atheism presents to our troubled culture is its failure to answer the simplest, yet most central question of the age: If we can’t empirically “prove” morality, then why be moral at all? For all the warts, flaws and institutional failures over the centuries, the world’s most enduring institutional religions have done a better job of answering that question than any of the contemporaneous atheist celebrities.

The very beauty and moral integrity of this trilogy belies the putative secular materialist origins of Mr. Pullman’s ethical and esthetic sensibilities. He obviously absorbed and retained something more from his childhood years, and it is from these deeper taproots that the creative impulse has given us a masterpiece. The last book of the trilogy introduces a new lens, “the Amber Spyglass” through which ordinary mortals can actually see the “dust” that (I propose) is a stand-in for the spirit of deity in the universe – “the dust, falling down from the stars”.

In the end it’s all about the lens we choose to use. Do we see just the material stuff or do we see the deeper thing that permeates all that is, seen and unseen?


For more on how we choose to see reality, I recommend three articles:

“Selecting the Right Lens, Some Observations About “Accidental Goodness” and meaning Detection”

“First and Last Messiah, Mining the Legacy of religious Thought”

& “To See the Invisible, Reflections about Discernment and Belief”


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